Unforgettable Seoul '10 Day 6 - Hyehwa, Gangnam, Insadong in Seoul

October 27, 2009 (Tuesday)

If I could travel to one place where I would go back and enjoy doing all the things I experienced again, Seoul will instantly pop out of my mind. Beijing, my first love, was displaced to second after three years of being on the top spot. Living in Beijing for one whole school year doesn't help replace the rush I feel every time I think about Seoul.


Now I am back here in the Philippines and I would always read about promotional offers for tours to Korea in the newspaper. I can't help but smile every time and reminisce about my own Korea experience. Yes, I joined one of those tours last October and it would have sucked if it weren't for my friends who made my very hard-earned money spent worthwhile. The food was not great (tour quality, e.g. one dish per meal, different type of raw meat dumped in water or soup and brought to boil every day) and we spent most of the time on the bus traveling to and from the mountain areas to the theme parks and to the city. Imagine going to a big, big theme park for only four hours on a weekend. The end thing - lots of people and almost zero chance to ride that oldest wooden roller coaster ride in Everland. This is what you get when you squeeze Korea in 5 days. The upside of going on that tour - going from one place to another was convenient and they have all the things planned out for you already. It would be very inconvenient to be on your own to go to Mt. Seorak, Nami Island and Everland if I was not in that tour. We had a tour assistant take our group pictures with the beautiful background and we didn't have to line up for tickets. The natural beauty of Korea itself also made up for all the discomfort and disappointment. At least we had awesome pictures. For that first five days, I paid the Rakso Travel Agency around 950 USD including the roundtrip airfare from Manila to Incheon via Asiana Airlines.


And so the other fun part began on the sixth day, when I left my friends and told them that I was embarking on a one-week adventure with a local friend. First, some last minute shots in Gangnam and Hyehwa.

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I sampled the ice cream sandwich from the infamous Baskin Robbins at the Hwehwa district before I met my friend Emily.


After my dessert, we ate in one of the Chinese restaurants for my first taste of real Korean food. First up, Jjajangmyun or black noodles, Jjampong and Tangsuyuk or Sweet and Sour Pork.


My friend gave me a brief introduction of the jjajangmyun and said that we can only eat this in Chinese restaurants in Korea because it was supposed to be the same jiajiangmien they have in the Mainland, however, over time the taste was altered to fit the Korean taste buds. What was once the salty jiajiangmien became a chewy and sweet treat made of black bean paste taken plain or oftentimes mixed with seafood. The sweet and sour pork was a familiar treat and a must-try favorite Chinese dish while it was actually nice to taste jjampong finally.I was always curious about jjampong ever since I saw the commercial for a local instant noodle with Jampong flavor. The unique aroma will surely tickle your senses. The seafood complements well with the spicy flavor and the noodle balances it all.


Next up, moving my luggage up and down the steep slopes of Gangnam, the "high-end" district where Novotel (yes, this is also why the tour was expensive, we stayed at nice hotels) was located, onto the newly constructed subway line to the university district of Sinchon. There, I checked in at an inn owned by my friend's aunt. I had a preferential rate of 40,000 won to 60,000 won per day towards the weekend (almost the same rate for backpacker hostels in Seoul which is can easily be searched online). For easier conversion rates from peso to won, I used 10,000 won = 400 pesos.What was nice about the room I got though was the big flat screen tv and the personal computer in the room, not to mention the heated floors, my own bathroom with a heated toilet seat and shower. I also got the room next to the hotelkeeper for added security (being a girl alone in a big city).


After a brief luggage drop-off, my friend and I rushed to meet her "tutee" on the subway station (good thing I bought that Hong Kong Octopus-like card they have for cheaper rates on the subway, more convenient too). Emily, my friend, is enrolled in a university at Seoul and she accompanies and tutors a troubled kid (he just moved to Korea and left everything behind in China) as part of her requirement, somewhat like a buddy system to help the kid adjust, familiarize him with Seoul and teach him the Korean language. We met him on the subway and we went to Insadong. Insadong is a window to Seoul's past. We spent a few hours going from one end of the street admiring art galleries and stores selling old-style toys, street food, linen and gift items until the end of the long road. The road is closed to cars so you will have to walk. Don't go too far though or you'll end up walking all the way back because there is only one subway stop near the entrance of the street.


Speaking of street food, the three of us enjoyed eating the Bungeobbang or what is most popularly known as the Fishcake. The outside is just as I remembered, the ones I eat in Beijing, made with a fish waffle mold as the name implies. The flavors I had back in Beijing though are milk, chocolate and red bean. In Seoul, there is only sweet red bean paste. I still love the milk flavor though. It's probably not the original Korean way it's eaten.


Since Insadong showcases traditional Korea, I was not surprised when Emily told me that Insadong is the only place in Korea where you can see a Starbucks with a sign in the Korean language here.


When it was time for her tutee to go home, Emily and I toured the side alleys of Insadong to eat dinner. We came across a nice looking restaurant and ate Pork Bulgogi (Bokem Udong) on a sizzling plate with rice (Bap) and Duenjang Jjige / Chigae or Korean Miso Soup and, of course, the traditional free side dishes.


Emily said that duenjang chigae is the best soup Koreans eat to compliment Bulgogi. We had pork bulgogi for the tour but this one tasted so good that I finished the food in a whole sizzling plate (we ordered one per person). I would definitely go to this restaurant again-good food and ambiance. Emily said so herself, this was one of the best restaurants she had been to in Seoul.


After dinner, we discovered Insadong's best kept secret, the Ssamzeigil. From the main street, you can't really notice the place, but once you're in, the place with its unique architectural design will surely captivate you. 


It is a haven for self-expression and you can easily find some novelty shop with cool trinkets to your liking in this place.I am not good in explaining the next thought but I hope you get it. The building has around three floors and you will not easily notice that you have already gone to another floor probably because of the unique slanted architecture. I didn't remember going up a lot of stairs but I winded up in another floor.


This summed up our first night of adventure. Well, after we rushed to the subway to go back to Sinchon before the trains stop its operations for the night. Emily and I were strangers in a new place. She herself had not toured Seoul. I guess we are the same in a way, that we haven't really seen the beauty of our own countries. I learned a lot though from my friend from the point of view of a local, especially on Korean food and culture. It's the best way to see the world. What's next? I consulted that free Seoul Best 100 I got from the Tourist Information Centers (they can be found all around Seoul and they have people there who can speak English and help you). I started highlighting the places I have been and where I wanted to go to for my next few days...

To be continued...

Read more about Seoul in Korea (you can find Busan in the labels):